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Rough crossings

York Membery looks back to an era when scores of poor Britons sailed the Atlantic in search of a bet

Ten pounds must have gone a long way in 1928. It had to - because that's how much my father had with him when he left Britain for Canada eighty years ago. I had always wanted to find out more about the lost Canadian chapter in Dad's life. He was in his fifties when I was born and died twenty-odd years ago (just after I had left university), taking the story of his time across the pond to the grave.

When he died, I discovered some old sepia photographs of his time in Canada, along with the odd letter which suggested, much to my surprise, that he had planned to stay there for good. I vowed to retrace his journey some day and find out why he eventually returned home.

This year I finally got to visit Halifax in Nova Scotia. Once an important British (and still Canada's main Atlantic) naval base, the city is home to Pier 21 (, a former arrival centre that is now a museum of immigration - the Canadian equivalent of Ellis Island, New York. Between 1928 and 1971, one and a half million immigrants, roughly a third of whom were British, passed through here.

In my father's day, crossing the Atlantic took up to a week. Some migrants saw it as the start of a great adventure, speaking excitedly of seeing "pack ice and icebergs"; others were too seasick to care. The museum tells the stories of the various migrant groups, among them the "home children", some 100,000 of whom (orphans or children of the "undeserving poor") were sent out from Britain's grimy cities in the hope of securing for them a brighter future in Canada's wide open spaces. However, many found no better a life, as a moving oral testimonial from a Scottish orphan girl sent out in the late Twenties makes clear: she caught chilblains, lost both her legs to gangrene and never got married, because "no one could afford me".

My father had sailed from Southampton "third class" on the Empress of Scotland, a former German liner that had been handed over to Britain as a reparations payment after the First World War. His fellow passengers came from Britain and beyond (several were Scandinavian). Some described their religion as Hebrew.

Among other things, the new arrivals were asked if they were "in any way mentally or physically defective or tubercular". Just about everyone ticked the "No" box. They were also asked if they intended to reside in Canada permanently. "Yes," my father answered - and the words "Landed immigrant" were stamped on his papers.

My father had lined up a job in Victoria, British Columbia, and back then, if you wanted to cross Canada "from sea to shining sea", rail was the fastest, easiest option, though the journey to the Pacific coast still took the best part of a week.

Transporting migrants across Canada was a big money earner for the Canadian Pacific Railway company and its rivals up until the 1950s, when the airlines began to grab an ever bigger slice of the action. Canadian Pacific, which began operating a transatlantic service in 1903, actively sought migrants in Britain and Europe, advertising land for sale at "$2.50 an acre" on the prairies. It even laid on special "Colonist" carriages for migrants which had basic sleeping facilities and a small kitchen at one end of the car.

That said, some migrants got a considerably warmer welcome than others: the arrival in 1913 of several hundred Russians, heading for the prairies, caused such alarm that they were put on a sealed train with armed guards when they landed in Halifax, before being despatched, parcel-like, across the country.

On finally reaching Victoria - still the most "English" of Canadian cities, if more reminiscent of a kinder and gentler England of the past - my father started work at a local dairy.

However, Dad's North American odyssey did not last long. The only hint of an explanation I had was a relative telling me that he'd been "let go" by his employer after a couple of years. After a stint hawking Christmas cards door to door, he returned to Britain.

Now, however, having visited the Pier 21 museum, I understood for the first time why things hadn't worked out. The Great Depression, triggered by the Wall Street Crash of 1929, bit that much deeper in the United States and Canada than in Britain. As such, the 1930s were the only decade in Canada's history during which more people left the country than arrived.

Perhaps my father's shame at not having made a success of things across the pond was the reason why he never spoke of this all-but-forgotten episode in his life. And although following in his footsteps was a sobering experience, it finally helped me resolve a family riddle - even if I did need somewhat more spending money than Dad had on him when he arrived in Canada all those years ago.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How safe is your job?

Photo: Getty Images
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When will the government take action to tackle the plight of circus animals?

Britain is lagging behind the rest of the world - and innocent animals are paying the price. 

It has been more than a year since the Prime Minister reiterated his commitment to passing legislation to impose a ban on the suffering of circus animals in England and Wales. How long does it take to get something done in Parliament?

I was an MP for more than two decades, so that’s a rhetorical question. I’m well aware that important issues like this one can drag on, but the continued lack of action to help stop the suffering of animals in circuses is indefensible.

Although the vast majority of the British public doesn’t want wild animals used in circuses (a public consultation on the issue found that more than 94 per cent of the public wanted to see a ban implemented and the Prime Minister promised to prohibit the practice by January 2015, no government bill on this issue was introduced during the last parliament.

A private member’s bill, introduced in 2013, was repeatedly blocked in the House of Commons by three MPs, so it needs a government bill to be laid if we are to have any hope of seeing this practice banned.

This colossal waste of time shames Britain, while all around the world, governments have been taking decisive action to stop the abuse of wild animals in circuses. Just last month, Catalonia’s Parliament overwhelmingly voted to ban it. While our own lawmakers dragged their feet, the Netherlands approved a ban that comes into effect later this year, as did Malta and Mexico. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, North America’s longest-running circus, has pledged to retire all the elephants it uses by 2018. Even in Iran, a country with precious few animal-welfare laws, 14 states have banned this archaic form of entertainment. Are we really lagging behind Iran?

The writing has long been on the wall. Only two English circuses are still clinging to this antiquated tradition of using wild animals, so implementing a ban would have very little bearing on businesses operating in England and Wales. But it would have a very positive impact on the animals still being exploited.

Every day that this legislation is delayed is another one of misery for the large wild animals, including tigers, being hauled around the country in circus wagons. Existing in cramped cages and denied everything that gives their lives meaning, animals become lethargic and depressed. Their spirits broken, many develop neurotic and abnormal behaviour, such as biting the bars of their cages and constantly pacing. It’s little wonder that such tormented creatures die far short of their natural life spans.

Watching a tiger jump through a fiery hoop may be entertaining to some, but we should all be aware of what it entails for the animal. UK laws require that animals be provided with a good quality of life, but the cruelty inherent in confining big, wild animals, who would roam miles in the wild, to small, cramped spaces and forcing them to engage in unnatural and confusing spectacles makes that impossible in circuses.

Those who agree with me can join PETA’s campaign to urge government to listen to the public and give such animals a chance to live as nature intended.


The Right Honourable Ann Widdecombe was an MP for 23 years and served as Shadow Home Secretary. She is a novelist, documentary maker and newspaper columnist.